"We had no one wanting to pay for our food back then"

Alex South

Alex South


Michelin-starred Niklas Ekstedt, known as the godfather of wood-fired cooking, is transforming his flagship Ekstedt restaurant in Sweden to celebrate twenty years since he launched his debut restaurant ‘Niklas’.

Speaking exclusively to The Staff Canteen, Niklas explained how his cooking style has developed, his thoughts on Noma’s closure, and his advice for young chefs wanting to make it in the industry.

Niklas recently announced that his Michelin-starred Ekstedt restaurant in central Stockholm is welcoming guests for an entirely new dining experience, continuing the time-honoured, yet pioneering fire-focussed cooking techniques that Niklas is renowned for.

Describing what it feels like to reach such a mammoth landmark in his career, Niklas said: "It’s surreal. When you get older it gets more and more difficult to stay contemporary and stay alive in this very modern world."

He added: "I started so young, when I first started off, I was only 22 years old and I was always the young kid, the upcoming, the new generation. Suddenly when decades go by you find yourself established, and a mentor, which is always a little complicated to comprehend so now it’s all about trying to stay curious, and the struggle of keeping up with what the new generation is doing, without being old and fatigued."

Looking back over the last twenty years, Niklas’ cooking style is rooted in celebrating traditional 18th century Scandinavian techniques, harking back to before the advent of electricity when fire was the primary tool in the culinary world, breathing new life into a formerly obsolete style of cooking.

Explaining how his cooking style took shape, Niklas revealed: "When I first started out it was before Noma, René actually worked with me in my kitchen, and we were all very inspired by the new Spanish style of cooking like El Bulli and a little bit of French like Michel Guerard. Not a lot of exciting things went on in Scandinavia. If you went to a fine dining restaurant it was very traditional French food, and I think that’s what everyone thought you needed to do to gain credibility."

He added: "Slowly we started to realise that our products, our food, our heritage and our traditions were just as strong as the southern Europeans, they were just better at mastering the skills of getting a restaurant out of it, and getting guests to pay money for their gastronomy, and we weren’t. We didn’t have that tradition or skill, it’s astonishing how we evolved, we had no one wanting to pay for our food back then, very very few." 


Despite struggling initially to promote traditional techniques and styles championed by Niklas and others, including Noma’s three Michelin-starred chef René Redzepi, cooking on fire has become immensely popular around then UK, and much of Europe and the world.

Talking about his cooking style being picked up across Europe, Niklas said: "It’s fascinating to see what [new chefs] do with these techniques. Cooking Scandinavian food is not about the product its actually about the technical aspects, and when I started thinking of cooking as a technique, and my pots, pans and stove as instruments, and not the finished product, that’s when it really gained momentum and people started paying attention to what I was doing."

"Those technical aspects that have always been around, but they haven’t been in a restaurant environment, that’s what we’re seeing a lot of people do now and almost everyone is doing something in their kitchen that’s inspired by what we did fifteen years ago," he added.

Looking to the future, with twenty years behind him and plenty more in-front, Niklas’ aims aren’t as easy to gauge as they had been in the past, with the hospitality landscape representing a very different beast to predict.

"At the moment it’s so hard to predict where we’re going. Everything you guessed, and everything you’ve thought would happen has not happened. I find it more and more of a struggle to predict the future, but I think that’s the advantage of being a chef. Every day is a challenge, we must focus on the daily service and the daily restaurant," he said.

Revealing his immediate priorities, Niklas explained: "Keeping the restaurant, the products and the food updated, and keeping my cooking relevant for my guests. The second thing is not burning myself out; Noma is closing, Fäviken has closed, a lot of those new Nordic establishments and pilgrim places are closing around me. I feel a little bit like the last man standing at the moment." 


In January 2023, René Redzepi announced his critically acclaimed three Michelin-starred restaurant Noma would be closing in 2024, announcing it would reopen in 2025 and transform 'into a giant lab—a pioneering test kitchen dedicated to the work of food innovation and the development of new flavours'.

Discussing his thoughts on Noma’s closure, Niklas explained: "I was surprised. Knowing him, he likes to surprise people and is still very full of energy and curiosity. I don’t think this is the last we hear of René Redzepi that’s for sure."

"I think he needed a break or something, but I think it will turn into something even more exciting eventually," he added.

Commenting on Ekstedt’s future in context of Noma’s closure, Niklas said: "I would like to work till I die, but not so I die. I would like to keep my restaurants and establishments for as long as possible, maybe even for eternity. I like to be important and a front figure, but I would like my restaurants and establishments to be their own universes. Starting a restaurant and opening a restaurant you need the chef, and you need someone to make it happen, but when it’s up and running and you do it right you can do it forever." 


Discussing which current chefs inspire him in the industry, Niklas revealed: "Tomos Parry is really exciting with what he’s doing with Brat in the UK, and someone that’s always inspired me is Christian Puglisi in Copenhagen with BÆST, and how he closed Relæ but still kept his other restaurants and himself very relevant. He’s doing his farming and being grounded; I really enjoy seeing what he does."

Celebrating twenty years of trailblazing and exceptional innovation, Niklas offered his best advice to news chefs looking to succeed in the industry.

"Have a little patience and stay a little longer in a restaurant – people leave too early. I would say at least 12 months but give it 24 months if you choose to go elsewhere. A three-week stage at a three Michelin-starred restaurant won’t change your life, you need to stay a little longer," he said.

Highlighting the importance of getting those base skills down, Nikals said: “You need to go to a restaurant where you can tell they’re going in a pan or frying things, and actually doing it from the base; more cooking and less plating early in your career, and then you can focus on making something beautiful, or plating something, but before you have the base it’s difficult to take it somewhere.”

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Alex South

Alex South

Editor 9th May 2023

"We had no one wanting to pay for our food back then"